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January 28, 2010

Rolando Villazon defends the UK TV show Pop Star to Opera Star

I've said a few less-than-enthusiastic things about the British TV reality show "Pop Star to Opera Star" (or, as they spell it over there, "Popstar to Operastar"), based on what little I know through video clips. And I questioned what a bona fide stellar tenor, Rolando Villazon, was doing on that show as a judge and vocal coach. He wouldn't likely see my commentary, but Villazon couldn't miss the broadsides from some critics in the UK, and, this week, he fired back in The Telegraph.

A sampling:

No sooner had the first episode ... aired then the sacred gates of the opera world opened, revealing a resounding chorus of disapproving voices. Among them, one stood out: Rupert Christiansen not only expressed his disgust and insulted all participants; he even wished doom on the entire project.

Why are the critics so angry? What do they fear? ... Popstar to Operastar is not a high-brow educational programme and it never claimed to be ... Opera is not in danger. Instead, perhaps we all could try to reduce the divide between the wider public and what is often - and wrongly - perceived as an elitist and inaccessible art form ...

Opera is treated with nothing but respect and admiration by the contestants in the programme. They have recognised its challenges and have been amazed and overjoyed by what they have discovered. That sincerity and curiosity have been the real discovery for me ...

As much as I can appreciate Mr. Villazon's reasoning, I'd be able to buy more of it were the show in question just a wee bit

classier. No, not elitist, but more tasteful and serious and sensible. To have a panel that includes Meat Loaf, a Charlotte Church-like-only-older British singer and some designer guy evaluating how the pop stars handle Puccini is just silly. It might not work if only true opera singers were judges, but one or two more wouldn't hurt, especially some of today's stars whose fresh, down-home personalities so strongly refute stereotypes about divas and divos.

My big problem with the show is that, except for the material being sung, it's really just another Whatever's Got Talent, or Whoever Idol -- lots of makeup, lighting, swirling camera angles, souped up arrangements, and an absurdly screaming studio audience. Putting a more substantive veneer on the product surely wouldn't hurt the ratings that much.

I don't really have trouble accepting the basic, fish-out-of-water premise of the show -- but, then again, I'm one of three people in the universe who love Barbra Streisand's classical music album. I think it's kinda cool when pop singers stretch. There still needs to be a credible artistic point to that exercise, though, and that's what I couldn't quite get from what I saw of this new show.

No one detests the elitist label on classical music more than I do, but I'm not crazy about seeing it treated like just any old form of entertainment, either.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:58 AM | | Comments (4)


For your information, Katherine Jenkins is a Classically trained Mezzo-Soprano who graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London with honours. Just because you haven't heard of her, why assume she is not worthy of being a Tutor and Judge on this show?

A lot of mezzo-sopranos graduate from the Royal College, it hardly qualifies them to stand beside Villazon as a vocal guide into the opera world. I agree with Tim, the concept isn't the problem, just the execution. The Canadian program "Bathroom Divas" was, I think, a MUCH better pathway for newcomers to opera to gain an appreciation for the genre.

Katherine Jenkin may be classically trained but she has never sung in an opera in her life and never will as she is not good enough. She has sold thousands of albums, all with souped up arrangements and echo chambers. She consistently denies she is an 'opera singer' but never takes issue with anybody who says she is, thus colluding with the deception. She is totally second rate and my heart sank when I heard she was going to be on this programme.

We have a prog here in the UK a few years ago called Opperatunity where amateurs sang opera and it was well done with indiviudal auditions, not with an audience, and two worthy winners emerged. It was done with style and class. this programme is tacky, cheap and vulgar and the audience seems to be drip fed on liquid mercury they make such a noise. I watched three of the series because I wanted to make sure it was not as bad as I thought.

It is and I won't be watching any more

You are right that Katherine Jenkins is a Classically trained Mezzo-Soprano...however there is a well known rumour in the British classical singing circuit, that when she applied to the Royal Academy of Music there was also an application from an astounding cellist of the same name. Apparently, due to an error in administration, led to the wrong K Jenkins getting offered the place on the course.

It is a shame that there is a trend in UK mass-media to promote singers with limited talent, rather than someone who can sing well.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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